When was the last time you bought a good tomato?
You know how it usually goes. You pick up a shiny, rubbery red globe at the supermarket, carry it home, cut it up and take a mealy, flavorless bite. "Bleah," you say, "I paid two bucks a pound for that?"
It cost a lot more than you think.
In Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, Barry Estabrook slices open the tomato business, focusing mainly on Florida, which is "the source for one-third of all the fresh tomatoes Americans eat."
Anyone who eats tomatoes will learn a great deal from this book. And for anyone who lives in Florida, it's must reading. Whether you know it or not, the tomato industry has an impact on your life — and not just by providing a red spot in your salad.
Estabrook has won the James Beard Award for food journalism and been an editor of Gourmet magazine and founding editor of Eating Well. He brings a foodie's passion and an investigative journalist's determination to finding the people who can tell the story of Solanum lycopersicum and the Sunshine State.
His curiosity was piqued, he tells us, when he was driving on I-75 near his mother's home in Naples. An open truck was loaded with what he first thought were Granny Smith apples. A few bright green fruits fell from the truck as it zipped along at 65 mph, hit the road surface — and bounced. Then rolled, then came to rest unmarked by their high-speed tumble. What could survive a fall like that intact?
A modern, industrially farmed tomato.
Estabrook begins with a history of the plant, which originated in the extremely arid Andean foothills. There it still survives and maintains some diversity in the face of habitat loss. But one variety, S. lycopersicum, was brought to Mesoamerica and domesticated by the Mayans and others. That was the start of centuries of inbreeding that produced the single species — despite its variations in color and shape — now consumed around the world and, because of that inbreeding, highly susceptible to pests and diseases.
Florida's tomato industry began just south of Tampa Bay in 1880, when Palmetto farmer Joel Hendrix shipped a cargo of green tomatoes from his farm to New York City in January. Tomato acreage in the state grew from 214 acres in 1890 to 29,000 in 1930. About that time, scientists developed a process that used ethylene gas to turn green tomatoes red, meaning they could be picked hard and green and rouged at will, just before going on the market shelf. They would look vine ripened — although they wouldn't taste that way. But for produce-hungry Northern consumers, that was, and remains, good enough.
Florida's winter growing season was key to its success in tomato growing — even though in every other way this is a really bad place to grow them (see excerpt, right). Because their land is so unsuitable to the crop, Florida farmers use a torrent of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides; Florida tomatoes get hit with five times as much fungicide and six times as much pesticide as California tomatoes.
Maybe eating tomatoes won't give you a serious dose of those chemicals, although many of them linger inside the fruit where they can't be washed away. It's a different story for farmworkers who plant, tend and pick them, and Estabrook paints a picture of their lives that will break all but the most shrunken heart.
He takes us from Naples, the United States' wealthiest metropolitan area, with an average net worth of $1.7 million (its megarich residents include Florida's governor) to Immokalee, less than an hour's drive away, where the average income is $9,700, one-quarter of the national average, and half the 15,000 residents live below the poverty line. Almost everyone in Immokalee works in the tomato industry.
Estabrook recounts crew leaders, the go-betweens for growers, purposefully recruiting workers who are undocumented, uneducated and who don't speak English, precisely because they will be easier to control — and cheat. He documents not just appalling conditions but outright slavery. He talks to Douglas Molloy, a U.S. attorney who has an international reputation for prosecuting slavery cases in Florida — at any given time, he's working on six to 12 cases. He tells Estabrook "that any American who has eaten a winter tomato, either purchased at a supermarket or on top of a fast food salad, has eaten fruit picked by the hand of a slave. 'That's not an assumption,' he told me. 'That is a fact.' "
What Estabrook finds makes him angry, no question, but he doesn't just leave readers with a bitter taste in their mouths. He looks for solutions, and he finds them on many fronts. He recounts the efforts of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which had its roots in 1996, when a 16-year-old worker, beaten bloody by his crew boss for having taken a drink of water, looked for help. Six hundred workers protested by marching on the boss' house and refusing to work for that crew boss — and it worked.
Since then, the coalition has grown into a national organization whose best known accomplishment is its Campaign for Fair Food, which has used boycotts, marches and coalitions with students and clergy to persuade fast food companies and the Florida Tomato Exchange, a growers' organization, to pay fair prices and support fair treatment of workers. Estabrook talks to a range of developers, lawyers, activists and workers about other efforts to improve conditions.
And as for the tomato itself, he visits two University of Florida researchers competing to create better ones. Old-school Jay Scott takes him through the Wimauma garden where he used traditional crossbreeding methods to come up with the Tasti-Lee, a commercial-style tomato that actually tastes good. Harry Klee's approach is a "multidisciplinary team that includes psychologists, food scientists, statisticians and molecular biologists." In his shiny Gainesville lab, Estabrook taste-tests tomatoes served to him through a slot by anonymous gloved hands.
Tom Beddard takes Estabrook on a tour of the Charlotte County acreage of Lady Moon Farms, the largest organic produce operation on the East Coast. Beddard uses traditional techniques like crop rotation and cover crops to grow tomatoes and other vegetables. His per-acre yield, he says, is lower than conventional growers', but he "more than recoups the differences in yields through the higher prices he can command for organic produce."
Not only does the farm use organic methods, it makes a point of fair treatment of and pay for its workers. Beddard tells Estabrook, "Organic farming in Florida can be a bitch. … But it can be done."
Put Tomatoland on your reading menu. It will surprise and perhaps enrage you, but its final flavor is hopeful.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435.